The U.S. House higher education subcommittee wants to create a federal college affordability index. The proposal has little to do with ranking colleges in a public image-building contest. It has everything to do with de facto price controls.
Congress would insert itself into the middle of each college's pricing decisions, stripping boards at private and public institutions of their independence and responsibilities to students. At thousands of colleges, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education would walk into a trustees' meeting and take permanent seats at the table.
The proposal would require that colleges whose prices exceed a federally imposed formula provide a detailed report to the U.S. Secretary of Education, create a "quality-efficiency task force," develop a management plan, develop an action plan, and face the threat of being placed on "affordability alert status" and undergoing an audit review by the U.S. Inspector General.
Colleges will face a choice between two equally onerous options: keep tuition increases at federally prescribed levels and comply with federal price controls, regardless of the impact on institutional aid budgets for low- and middle-income families and the quality of the educational experience; or succumb to federal oversight.
At, we have worked hard at cutting costs, while still offering a strong educational experience resulting in more than 90 percent of graduates securing jobs annually with an average starting salary in the mid-$30,000s, and one in 10 of our alumni becoming a president, CEO, or business owner over the course of their careers.
However, it is certainly costly to run a "town within a town." Families demand high-quality academic programs, student life experiences, and athletic opportunities. Libraries, athletic facilities, good dining options, and public safety are also considered important to college selection.
Nationally at private institutions, tuition and fees paid by families only cover two-thirds of the actual cost of a student's college experience. Other costs--such as increasing fuel, medical benefits, and insurance burdens--must be covered by annual giving, auxiliary enterprises, and investment income.
Our institutions are already required to regularly report comprehensive data on price, student aid, and countless other indicators to the U.S. Department of Education. These reporting requirements annually cost thousands of dollars in computer software, accounting audits, and personnel. Adding more reporting requirements will continue to increase costs. Before imposing further unfunded mandates on colleges, Congress needs to work with the Department of Education to ensure that this consumer information is effectively packaged and widely publicized. We support this goal.
The current market offers a variety of cost options to the public, from community colleges to elite private institutions. The needs of students and the higher ed marketplace--not federal intrusion into campus management decisions--are what should drive the decisions of college trustees. Otherwise, American higher education will not continue to be the model for the world.
Debra M. Murphy is president of Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.